The Truth About Retiring at 65

In 1935, when the Social Security Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Roosevelt, the new law established a national retirement age of 65. At that age, people could begin receiving Social Security benefits and, in the minds of generations of Americans since, effectively set the psychological “retirement” age.

There’s an important fact to consider, though, that’s been left out of this story. In 1935, the average American lifespan was 61.7 years. You had to exceed the average American lifespan by more than three years to begin receiving Social Security benefits.

Let’s roll forward to today. The “retirement age” set by Social Security is still 65. However, today the average American lifespan is 78 years and continuing to rise.

In other words, the national “retirement age” of 65 has remained unchanged for 75 years, but the lifespan of the average American has gone up by 16 years.

Yes, this is an easy explanation for why Social Security is seeing financial problems, but there’s a more vital issue at work here, one that we’re seeing at work all over the place in America.

40 is the new 20. 60 is the new 40. Simply put, people are living far longer and enjoying excellent health much later in life than ever before.

In 1935, a person aged 65 was often quite elderly and in poor health. In 2011, a person aged 65 is often full of vitality and has two more decades of lively activity ahead of them (at least).

There are two key points to pull out of this.

First, if you’re under 50 or so, you’re probably not going to be able to retire when you’re 65. In the past, Social Security could sustain you by providing enough income between the age of 65 and the end of your life that you could survive. Unfortunately, as lives grow longer and future generations grow smaller in size, one of two things will eventually have to happen: either the Social Security age will move back or the amount of benefits will fall.

That means that either you’re going to be going on full Social Security benefits at a later age than 65 or Social Security benefits are not going to be enough to sustain you in retirement at all. In either case, retirement at 65 simply because Social Security is now available is quickly becoming a myth – and will completely become a myth in a decade or two.

At the same time, however, 65 is the new 45. Over the last 75 years, the quality of life for people over the age of 65 has increased drastically. Rather than beginning to lose control of their faculties, most people between the ages of 65 and, say, 80 are quite valuable and have a ton to offer in the workplace and in the marketplace.

Simply put, at the same time that retiring at age 65 is becoming less feasible because of longer lifespans and demographic shifts, it’s becoming much more worthwhile to continue being productive at 65.

What does this mean for retirement planning?

At this point, I don’t view retirement planning as saving for true retirement. Most retirement savings plans allow you to begin taking money out at age 60, which means you likely have a quarter of a century of good health ahead of you at that point.

Instead, I look at retirement planning as building a backbone for a second career. At age 65, I won’t have enough retirement savings or Social Security income to fully sustain me for the rest of my life, but I will have enough retirement income to make it possible to take some significant career risks. I can take a low-paying position with a charity or even do volunteer positions with some perks. I could retreat for a year and write the novel I’ve always wanted to write. I can take a very low-stress job as a greeter or a position on a community board that gives a stipend.

These are all things that are difficult to do right now in my life, yet sound appealing to me and have a firm place on my to-do list.

Simply put, my retirement savings aren’t just for retirement; instead, they create possibilities for a second career or other opportunities later on during my healthy adult life.

Don’t fear the changes coming in retirement savings. Embrace them for the opportunity that they are.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.